Lack of Minority Representation in Science and Engineering Endangering US Economic Health

By Jan Zverina

July 26, 2012

We need to “combat the loss of the precious few,” Richard Tapia tells attendees at XSEDE12 conference.

Rapid growth in certain segments of the nation’s population is pushing the country’s educational challenges to a crisis level, while too many of the “precious few” under-represented minority students pursuing science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) disciplines are dropping out or changing majors, according to Richard Tapia, an internationally known mathematician.

“Our concern with under-representation today does not stem from moral or ethical issues,” Tapia, a professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University said during his keynote address to attendees of XSEDE12, this year’s conference of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF)  Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) program in Chicago.

“It’s a simple matter of the nation’s survival,” said Tapia, also director of XSEDE’s Scholars Program, adding that such an equitable representation “is to make the country healthy and the leadership healthy.”

Tapia, a Mexican American born in Los Angeles – and the first native born Latino to win the National Medal of Science – said that under-represented minorities growing up in the United States who are interested in science, engineering, or mathematics often face what he called an “identity crisis,” while noting the extremely low number of under-represented minority (URM) graduate students in STEM departments among the nation’s top research universities.

He said those students often encounter “a sink or swim” culture, and have no support mechanisms at those leading research schools. Often they lose confidence, causing them to migrate to non-STEM majors.

“They may graduate, but not in their intended major, and that means they are lost to research science,” Tapia told XSEDE12 attendees. “We depend too much on minority-serving institutions to solve the under-representation problem, but all universities must be a part of the solution. If we URMs are to be an effective component in U.S. STEM leadership, then we must have equitable presence as students and faculty at the top research universities.”

Tapia said the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that Hispanics – currently the fastest growing segment of the nation’s population – continue to be the least educated.  He said that in 2006, Hispanics made up 14.8 percent of the U.S. population, while Asians as a group made up only 4.4 percent. Yet Hispanics made up less than 2.4 percent of the nation’s academic “pipeline” in STEM-related disciplines, while Asians, which he does not consider to be URMs in STEM, accounted for more than 17.5 percent.

“There are good jobs, but we URMs tend not to train in the areas where there are jobs,” he said, adding that “the rate at which this population is growing is outpacing the rate at which we as a nation are improving our effectiveness in educating this segment of the population.”

Affirmative Action, ‘Separate but Equal’, and “Diversity”

Tapia, in his remarks, touched on several areas that have actually hampered the success of under-represented minorities, both within and outside the academic community.

On affirmative action:

“Some progress was made, but not enough. After 40 years the nation got tired.  We don’t want reverse discrimination, and we don’t want lowering of standards. So affirmative action died; it probably should have died and we did not do a good job with it. Instead, affirmative action should have been an evaluation of the evaluation process and modifications made so that it could identify those who would succeed.”

On ‘Separate but Equal’:

“America’s solution technique to correct for denied education has been to propose separate but equal activities. Separate but equal is always separate but never equal. And separate but not equal is destroying the country and will continue to do so if we don’t change this way of doing business.”

On “Diversity” versus “Under-represented”:

“The two are not the same, but today we stay away from the politically incorrect term ‘under-representation’ and use the politically correct term ‘diversity.’  We do this with serious negative consequences for under-representation Today’s research universities are very ‘diverse’ in terms of faculty and graduate students. However representation of members from underrepresented groups is non-existent. ‘Diversity’ is a word that you can pick up and sweep the dirt underneath.”

In summarizing his remarks, Tapia said he believes the economic health of the country is based in large measure upon technical advances, but that the nation must find a way to incorporate the growing population of under-represented minorities into the mainstream of scientific and technical endeavors. In response to a student’s question following his talk, Tapia said: “Be a professional who happens to be a minority or woman. Don’t be professional minority,” adding “strong credentials will take you wherever you want to go.”

About Richard Tapia

Tapia is a mathematician and professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is internationally known for his research in the computational and mathematical sciences and is a national leader in education and outreach programs. Tapia’s current Rice positions are University Professor; Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering; and Director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education. His complete biography is at http://www.caam.rice.edu/~rat/brief_bio.html.

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